I’m sure you’ve had a few sleepless nights trying to memorize endless lists of words and their translation into your first language, only to realize the next day that you don’t remember a thing or you can’t really use them in your exam essay. If that’s the case, maybe you need to reconsider how to study vocabulary. So, here’s a list of tips that might work for you.

Definitions? – Definitely!

Why should you study the definition of a word? Well, if you ask a native speaker or an advanced user of English about the meaning of a word, they’ll probably explain it to you using different, usually simpler, words. Dictionaries do that too! It does take more time and effort than looking up the translation of a word, but studying definitions will help you describe words more confidently when you don’t know the name for something or you can’t remember:


  • (in the lab) Are you looking for something?
  • Yeah, that thing we use to pour liquids – it’s wide at the top and narrow at the bottom.
  • Oh, a funnel?
  • Yes, a funnel.


I know, I know you are thinking ‘What’s grammar got to do with vocabulary?’ The answer? An awful lot. You see, knowing a word involves knowing more than just the spelling, pronunciation and its meaning; it means knowing how to use the word when speaking or writing. So, check a monolingual dictionary to see what the past form of the verb ‘lead’ is, whether ‘equipment’ can take -s, how to correct ‘I have difficulty to learn vocabulary’ or what structures follow a verb like the example below from Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.



Collocations are word combinations, two or more words that go together e.g. quick shower, heavy traffic, strong coffee, etc. These combinations sound right to native speakers and advanced users of English while others don’t e.g. fast shower, dense traffic, powerful coffee. Learning collocations is particularly important (collocations alert!) if you want to sound more natural and avoid vocabulary mistakes. Where to find them? You can buy a collocations dictionary, such as the Oxford Collocations Dictionary for students of English, or use websites like Flax and Justtheword. You can look at various combinations:

verb + noun


noun + verb


adverb + adjective


What about academic vocabulary though? Well, there is the academic collocation list by Pearson (click here), and of course the texts you have to read for your course e.g. textbooks, academic journal articles, etc. It’s very important that you try to notice, record and revise these word combinations that are common in your own discipline.

Prefixes & Suffixes???

Another way to expand your vocabulary is by studying prefixes and suffixes. Prefixes are groups of letters that are added to the beginning of a word, such counter- in counter-argument, un- in unreasonable, and under- in underdeveloped. Learning the meaning of these suffixes can help you guess the meaning of unknown words. For instance, if you know that over- means ‘more than usual’, you can guess the meaning of words like overestimate, overload, overproduction, over-confident, etc.


Suffixes are groups of letters that are added to the end of a word and they change its part of speech. For example, if you add the suffix -al to the noun structure, you will form the adjective structural. So, when learning a new word, do spend some extra time to look at the word family of this word and notice what suffixes are used. Online dictionaries, such Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Longman and Cambridge Dictionary, have a list/box of words from the same word family. As shown below, you need to add -ive to indicate to form its adjective and -ion, -or and -ive to form its nouns, and in most cases, these nouns have different meanings.


So, what are you waiting for? Visit UEFAP and click on Building to study and practise using prefixes like ultra-, hypo-, semi- and suffixes like -ify, -ment and -ous.


Apart from learning collocations, you can also learn vocabulary that falls under a specific topic e.g. health, technology, immigration, etc. – this helps your brain to remember the words better. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary offers many lists of topic vocabulary.

By selecting a topic and subtopic of your choice, you can find mini-dictionaries like the one below. Then, click on the words you want to study and this will take you to their definition, examples, etc.


Speling (!!!)

It’s true, we do rely on spellcheckers and auto-correction when writing, but they might have failed you or you might be genuinely interested in improving your spelling. A good place to start is to look at commonly misspelled words. One list you might come across online is by Common misspellings by Oxford Dictionaries.


But, that’s not all! On the right, you will see more on spelling such as changes when adding suffixes or grammatical spelling (plurals, adverbs, comparatives and more). So, why not make a list of the words whose spelling is problematic for YOU and revise them every now and then.

spell t.png


Pronunciation, another vital part of what knowing a word involves. You will do a lot of reading and writing at university, no doubt, but you’ll also speak in English: tutorials, seminars, presentations, study groups with fellow students or reporting to another student about your lab experiments. You will also need to identify the pronunciation of words when listening to people in all of these contexts. How to improve your pronunciation? There are various ways.

Look it up in an online dictionary. Click on the Speaker button to listen to it, then repeat as many times as you need to. The little dots show you how many syllables a word has (va-ri-a-ble), and the accent symbol will indicate the word stress (VAriable, not vaRIable or variaBLE).


It’s also a good idea to notice the phonetic transcript, the symbols used to write the pronunciation of a word. Apps like Sounds by Macmillan and websites like The Sounds of English by BBC Learning English can help you make connections between spelling and pronunciation, although English is known for the inconsistency between those two. So, watch these videos and focus on imitating the lip movements, being aware of your tongue position and controlling your vocal box. Because pronunciation is physical too!

Synonyms & antonyms

As mentioned earlier, learning vocabulary in chunks (collocations) or groups (topic-based) aids your memory, and so does learning synonyms and antonyms. A synonym is a word that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word e.g. progress, development, advancement, etc., while an antonym is a word that has the opposite meaning e.g. compulsory ≠ optional, relevant ≠ irrelevant, success ≠ failure. Most dictionaries include synonyms and antonyms, but you can also consult a thesaurus (wordfinder) such as http://www.thesaurus.com/ (see below).


However, you should be very careful when using a thesaurus because these synonyms do not have exactly the same meaning and, most importantly, their use depends on the context/collocations.

For example, you can say ‘efficient method/system/service’ but you can’t say ‘skillful method/system/service’. You need to say ‘useful method’, ‘expert system’ and ‘active service’. So, if you are paraphrasing and decide to change random words with synonyms, you will most likely end up with writing that does not make sense in English.


Similarly, if you are looking for antonyms, you are better off using ‘inefficient’ or ‘ineffective’ as opposed to ‘lazy, helpless and worthless’, which have a very negative connotation and will be considered inappropriate.

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